The ever-increasing demand for clubs to deliver titles have restricted their transfer strategies. While looking for the ‘best’ players to improve their championship credentials, top clubs often ignore some of the hidden gems which may end up being an excellent addition to the squad. We take a look at five such Asian players (think Son Heung-min), who top clubs should take a chance on.
We have excluded players who are already associated with ‘top’ European clubs, for example, Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Takefusa Kubo (Real Madrid), Hiroki Abe (Barcelona).
#5 Alireza Beiranvand (IR Iran)
One of the finest goalkeepers produced by the continent, Alireza Beiranvand’s domestic and international pedigree itself warrants a move to Europe. The IR Iran star has been one of the most consistent performers in the last few years and was even voted the best player from his country in 2019.
As far as individual achievements go, Alireza also held the ninth position among the world’s best goalkeepers in 2017. He was voted as the best goalkeeper of the Persian Pro Gulf League for four consecutive seasons from 2014 till 2019 and was included in the best eleven.
Alireza’s climb to the IR Iran national team started back in 2015. The custodian was brought into the national team fold by head coach Carlos Queiroz and slowly won the starting position from Alireza Haghighi during the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification. He was the team’s ‘number 1’ for the main tournament.
The 27-year-old performed admirably in Russia and was key to an Iran side which finished third in their group, just one point behind heavyweights Spain and Portugal. Most notably, he saved a penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo in the final group stage match as the two sides drew 1-1.
Which clubs should look at him? Chelsea, Liverpool, AC Milan, Arsenal. Any team looking for a back-up goalkeeper on a good deal should add Alireza to their list. The 27-year-old has the skillset required for top-level and is entering his prime.
#4 Hwang Hee-chan (Korea Republic)
Recognising his talents early, Salzburg moved quickly to bring Hwang Hee-chan into the fold, even before he signed his first professional contract. The forward arrived in Europe in 2014 and has since been contracted to the Austrian heavyweights.
Initially sent on loan to second division side, FC Liefering, Hwang only broke into the Salzburg first-team squad in 2015. His debut season went without him scoring a league goal, however, he picked it up the following year and scored sixteen times in thirty-five appearances. In 2017/18, the Korea Republic forward starred for his side, as they made an unprecedented run to the UEFA Europa League semi-final.
Hwang followed his compatriot Son Heung-min and joined Hamburg SV for the 2018/19 season. He returned to Austria once again for the 2019/20 season and has since been turned into a starter. His crowning moment at Europe’s top-level came in the UEFA Champions League when he became only the second player to dribble past Virgil van Dijk in a year, before scoring.
Which clubs should look at him? Arsenal, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund. A speedster in his own right, Hwang would suit a side always looking to break at pace.
#3 Sardar Azmoun (IR Iran)
24-year-old Sardar Azmoun has thirty-two international goals to his name in fifty appearances. He has netted twenty-three times in forty games over the last season and a half. He has been compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the legendary Ali Daei. However, rather surprisingly, he is yet to step into Europe beyond Russia.
Russian Premier League side Rubin Kazan were the first to take a chance on Azmoun back in 2013, as they brought him to Europe from Sepahan. Then just seventeen, he decided to become the first Iranian to play in the RPL, rejecting interest from domestic heavyweights Esteghlal and Persepolis.
Azmoun made his official European debut in July 2013 and what followed was a series of moves, all inside the Russian Premier League. Rostov picked him up from Kazan midway through the 2014/15 season and then sold him to his previous owners in 2017. His biggest move to date came when Zenit St Petersburg brought him in January 2019, following a decent AFC Asian Cup.
The 24-year-old forward has been scoring for fun since then. He netted twelve in sixteen appearances in the first half of 2019 in the league itself. Furthermore, Azmoun has shone on a European level too, scoring in both UEFA Europa League and the UEFA Champions League.
Which clubs should look at him? Arsenal, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Chelsea. Combine pace with power and finishing and you have the recipe for success. Azmoun offers exactly that and could easily play back-up to Europe’s top strikers.
#2 Shoya Nakajima (Japan)
Portuguese club Portimonense SC decided to take a chance on the relatively-unknown Shoya Nakajima back in 2017. The winger was brought in on an initial loan deal, and after impressing, on a permanent one.
Six months into his permanent contract with Portimonense, Nakajima was being linked with the likes of Manchester United and Paris Saint Germain. However, in January 2019, the Japan international secured a rather dubious transfer to Qatar-based Al-Duhail SC, with reports linking PSG behind the move.
Nevertheless, Nakajima returned to Europe, and Portugal, for the second time in July 2019, signing a five-year contract with FC Porto, which included an €80 Million release clause.
Despite a slow start as Estadio Dragao, Nakajima’s talents remain unmistakable. The 25-year-old has the skill set to play wide and just behind the striker and can both score and assist, as he showed during his year and a half spell at Portimonense.
Which clubs should look at him? Manchester United, Paris Saint Germain, AC Milan. Offering versatility and creativity, Nakajima could prove a vital addition to any side in need of an all-around wide-man. The €80 Million clause, however, could be a problem.
#1 Takumi Minamino (Japan)
Back in October, UEFA Champions League 2018/19 winners invited a rather unknown RB Salzburg to Anfield. The two sides were meeting each other on the second match-day of the 19/20 Champions League group stage, with the Reds desperate for a win.
Jurgen Klopp’s men started well, going up by three goals within the first thirty-six minutes. However, what followed shocked the Kop to a standstill, as the Austrian minnows fought back at the home of the European champions to make it 3-3. Liverpool eventually won the match 4-3, but the fans came away from the stadium with one name fresh in their minds – Takumi Minamino.
A goal and an assist, as well as being a part of one of the most exciting sides in this year’s Champions League, has propelled Japan international Minamino to the forefront. However, the winger’s statistics show that he has been one of the most consistent performers on the continent over the last five years.
Minamino has scored ten or more goals, across all European competition, in all seasons except 2014/15. He is expected to cross that mark once again this season, having already scored eight times in nineteen appearances. Furthermore, the winger has shown that he is much more than a goalscorer, by constantly setting up goals for his teammates. He did the same at Anfield in early October, as he provided the assist for Erling Haaland to make it 3-3.
Which clubs should look at him? Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham. Electrifying pace and an eye for a goal, Minamino would fit right into any of the Premier League top six squads.